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FLORIDA CHIEF FINANCIAL OFFICER TOM GALLAGHER'S WEEKLY NEWSLETTER

Volume 3, Number 41, October 9, 2006

In 2002, I made a commitment to improve Florida's workers' compensation system to help our state's employers and their employees.

I'm proud to say that workers’ compensation insurance rates have dropped more than 30 percent over the last three years while the amount of premiums collected – an indication both of Florida’s robust economy and employer compliance – are at an all-time high.  In fact, annual premiums collected have grown by more than $700 million over that same time period.

Meaningful reforms, more aggressive investigation of workers’ compensation fraud and increased compliance efforts have led to a dramatic  $1 billion in savings for Florida’s businesses.  

Improving Florida's business climate means more and better jobs for our residents, and improved access to products and services.

Kudos to the hardworking men and women in the department who have helped achieve these results.

 -- Tom Gallagher


FLORIDA CABINET DESIGNATES FIRE PREVENTION WEEK, HONORS YOUTH WHO SAVED WOMAN FROM HOME FIRE

Fire Prevention Week, Oct. 8-14, Will Focus on Cooking Incidents As Leading Cause of Home Fires


Governor Jeb Bush, State Fire Marshal Tom Gallagher and the other members of the Florida Cabinet designated next week, Oct. 8-14, as Fire Prevention Week in Florida and kicked off activities by honoring a young man from Navarre who, along with two other friends, helped rescue a 64-year-old woman from a home fire in July.

Tyler McArthur, 16, was presented the Cabinet’s resolution proclaiming next week as Fire Prevention Week. Early in the morning on July 5, Graves and two of his friends spotted flames and smoke coming from the garage of a home on Longview Street. They pounded on the door until a woman answered and then pulled her out to safety. Holley-Navarre Fire Department Chief Les Slocum also attended today’s Cabinet meeting. The State Fire Marshal’s Office determined the fire likely was caused by an electrical short in the attic.

“These young men saved a life because of their quick and brave actions,” Gallagher said. “But tragically hundreds of Floridians are killed or injured every year by fire because they don’t have a working smoke detector or a fire escape plan.”

The theme of Fire Prevention Week is “Watch What You Heat.” Nearly one-third of all home fires in Florida last year started in the kitchen, a trend that year after year has made cooking the leading cause of residential fires. Gallagher is urging Floridians to think about cooking safety, including teaching children about fire risks in the kitchen.

“It is important to be aware that there are very real risks in simple, everyday activities such as cooking,” Gallagher said. “Taking a few simple precautions can go a long way toward protecting families and homes from the devastation that fire can quickly inflict.”

Last year, 192 Floridians died and 794 were injured by fire. Those fires caused more than $304 million in damage and, in nearly half of all structure fires, there was no working smoke detector.

During Fire Prevention Week, the State Fire Marshal’s Office, Bureau of Fire Prevention, will work with fire departments throughout Florida to distribute brochures with safe cooking tips and information. Titled “Watch What You Heat,” the brochure can also be viewed or downloaded at www.MyFloridaCFO.com/sfm.

Floridians can also take a quiz to test your cooking safety skills. The short quiz and the results of a national survey on kitchen fire safety are available through the National Fire Protection Association’s web site: http://www.nfpa.org.

Some of the tips in the “Watch What You Heat” brochure are:

  • While cooking, turn pots and pans so their handles are facing in a way that you are less likely to knock them over and a child would be less able to reach up and grab one.
  • Keep your stove clean. An accumulation of dirt and grease can cause the stove to catch fire.
  • When deep frying, never fill the fryer more than half full. The grease will expand as it heats or when food is placed in it and may overflow onto the burner and ignite a fire.
  • If grease in a pan catches fire, carefully slide a lid over the pan to smother the flames, and turn off the burner or use a multipurpose dry chemical fire extinguisher. Using water could make the fire worse.
  • If an extinguisher doesn’t do the job or the blaze gets too big, get out of your home and call the fire department.
  • Teach your children what “hot” means at an early age. Tell your children often that stoves, pans, ovens and microwaves are hot.
  • Make and practice a family escape plan.
  • Maintain working smoke detectors and replace batteries twice a year.

“If a fire occurs, you may have only a few seconds to escape,” Gallagher said. “That’s why it is critical to have a plan that you have practiced and memorized.”

For a schedule of other Fire Prevention week activities planned for next week, go to www.MyFloridaCFO.com/sfm. There also are pages for kids, parents and teachers at http://www.MyFloridaCFO.com/SFM/SFM_ForTheKids.htm.


GALLAGHER ANNOUNCES ARRESTS IN THREE SEPARATE WORKERS’ COMPENSATION FRAUD CASES

Tom Gallagher, Florida’s chief financial officer, has announced the arrests of three individuals in Central Florida on workers’ compensation fraud charges, including one employer who did not have coverage for a worker who died after falling from a high-rise construction project.

Harry M. Zeigler, 42, president of Zeigler Concrete & Reinforcing, Inc., (Zeigler) located in Chuluota, surrendered Thursday on charges of knowingly omitting or concealing material information for the purpose of avoiding, delaying, or diminishing the amount of workers’ compensation premiums due. The charges stem from an investigation led by Det. Greg Whipple of the Department of Financial Services, Division of Insurance Fraud (DIF).

“We are determined to ensure that employers comply with the law and that appropriate action is taken against those who do not,” said Gallagher, who oversees the department. “Compliance is critical for the welfare of our workforce and the economy of this state.”

Arrests and other compliance efforts by the department, along with laws passed in 2003 that created tougher penalties for workers’ compensation fraud, have pushed workers’ compensation premiums down more than 30 percent. A fourth drop of 13.3 percent is pending.

Zeigler’s employee died in April 2005 from injuries sustained from the fall. Fraud detectives discovered that the deceased was never reported as an employee to Bridgefield Insurance, Zeigler’s worker’s compensation carrier.

At a job site at Shingle Creek in Orlando, detectives interviewed about 20 employees who reported they had been working for Zeigler anywhere from three months to six years. An audit dated May 18, 2005, revealed that several of the employees, including the deceased, had been reported to Bridgefield Insurance as subcontractors rather than employees. The payroll Zeigler reported during the audit was $331,207. Almost three weeks later, Bridgefield was informed that not all payroll had been reported and a second audit was conducted. The revised audit revealed a $983,038 payroll.

Had this difference in payroll not been detected, Zeigler would have avoided nearly $100,000 in workers’ compensation insurance premiums. Zeigler was booked into the Orange County Jail. The charges are being prosecuted by the Office of Statewide Prosecution.

In another case, detectives with the Orlando DIF office arrested Larry Alvin Jackson Sr., 67, owner of Jaxon Painting, Inc., for presenting fictitious certificates of insurance to a Jacksonville-area construction company that hired Jackson’s company as a painting subcontractor for central Florida area projects.

DIF’s investigation, led by Det. Neil McDonald, revealed that Jackson did not have the workers’ compensation insurance coverage he claimed to have on the fictitious certificates, and that he obtained the insurance certificate of an unrelated innocent company and allegedly used that company’s legitimate policy references to create a fictitious certificate for his own company.

Jackson surrendered on the charges on Sept. 29 and was booked into the Orange County Jail. The charges are being prosecuted in Orange County by the State Attorney's Office, 9th Judicial Circuit of Florida.

In a third case, DIF detectives arrested Norberto Legarreta, 54, on Sept. 25 on charges of workers’ compensation claim fraud and perjury.

Legarreta, of Deltona, allegedly failed to disclose that he had been receiving ongoing chiropractic care for previous back and leg pain for nearly 15 years and denied receiving chiropractic care given just days before a 2004 workers' compensation injury. Detectives said Legarreta also concealed the fact that the Social Security Administration listed him as disabled and paid him disability benefits from 1991 to 2000 due to his back problems.

Detectives said he also denied being a little league umpire, which was caught on video and in records showing that he worked the 2005 and 2006 little league seasons and earned almost $1,000. FCCI Insurance Group (FCCI) and the Professional Business Owners Association (PBOA) paid him almost $65,000.

Legarreta was booked into the Seminole County Jail. The charges are being prosecuted in Seminole County by the State Attorney's Office, 18th Judicial Circuit of Florida. Detective Kurt Harmon was DIF’s case investigator.

The Department of Financial Services, Division of Insurance Fraud, investigates various forms of fraud in insurance, including health, life, auto, property and workers' compensation insurance. Anyone with information about this case is asked to call the department's Fraud Fighters Hotline at 1-800-378-0445. A reward of up to $25,000 may be offered for information leading to an arrest and conviction.


GALLAGHER ANNOUNCES PARTNERSHIPS WITH NON-PROFITS TO STRENGTHEN HOMES AGAINST HURRICANES

4,000 Low-Income Homeowners to be Served

Chief Financial Officer Tom Gallagher announced that 4,000 low-income homeowners will soon be safer from hurricanes thanks to new partnerships between 12 non-profit organizations and the My Safe Florida Home program.  Through the partnerships, homeowners will receive free home inspections and assistance to make improvements that will strengthen homes against catastrophic losses.

 “Partnering with faith- and community-based groups to help fortify low-income homes in Florida is mission critical to protecting families and reducing property losses,” said Gallagher, who oversees the My Safe Florida Home program.  “Through these partnerships, we will be able to leverage resources and help thousands of Floridians before the end of this hurricane season.”

Through the Volunteer Florida Foundation, which administers the Florida Hurricane Relief Fund, 12 non-profit organizations throughout the state are teaming up with the My Safe Florida Home program to fortify up to 4,000 low-income homes in Broward, Escambia, Glades, Hendry, Miami-Dade, Osceola, Palm Beach, Pinellas, Polk and St. Lucie counties.  My Safe Florida Home is matching $8.1 million with the resources of these 12 organizations. 

A homeowner can earn no more than 80 percent of the Annual Median Income (AMI) to qualify for this assistance.  AMI varies by county.

Participating homeowners will receive free home inspections to determine what improvements can be made to strengthen their homes against hurricane damage.  Following the inspections, homeowners will receive assistance to make recommended improvements.

“In our long-term recovery work following the last two hurricane seasons, we at the Florida Hurricane Relief Fund have learned the enormous value of partnering with community and faith-based groups, organizations that know their communities and are effective partners in accomplishing important tasks,” said Liza McFadden, president of the Volunteer Florida Foundation. “We are honored to expand our role to include mitigation work with the Department of Financial Services to ensure Florida’s low-income residents get the help they need to strengthen their homes.”

Funding for the partnership with non-profit organizations is possible because of a $250 million appropriation by the Florida Legislature during the 2006 Session to create the Florida Comprehensive Hurricane Damage Mitigation Program, now referred to as My Safe Florida Home and administered by the Florida Department of Financial Services.

To date, the department has received more than 53,000 applications in the mail from Floridians eager to have free home inspections.  Nearly 5,000 inspections are currently being done in Dade, Broward and Lee counties.  Gallagher said his goal is to have 12,000 inspections completed before the end of this hurricane season, November 30.

To learn more about the My Safe Florida Home program, visit www.mysafefloridahome.com.  


“FORTIFY FLORIDA!” BRINGS PREPAREDNESS HOME TO PALM BEACH

Florida Atlantic University and Florida Power & Light host town fair to help homeowners harden homes against hurricane damage and reduce cost of insurance
       

Lt. Governor Toni Jennings, Chief Financial Officer Tom Gallagher, Insurance Commissioner Kevin McCarty, FPL president Armando Olivera and FAU president Frank Brogan announced, Fortify Florida: Palm Beach Prepares!, the third in a series of town fairs around the state to provide homeowners with a one-stop-shop of information about hardening their homes against hurricanes and reducing their insurance premium.  Insurance companies, home improvement stores, emergency managers, non-profit organizations and other government and private-sector partners are participating in the town fairs, which are free and open to the public.  The town fair is scheduled for Saturday, October 14th from 10 am to 4 pm at the Florida Atlantic University Arena "The Burrow", 777 Glades Road in Boca Raton. 

“Fortifying Florida is essential for instilling a ‘culture of preparedness.’  The goal of the town fairs is to empower people with the information they need to make critical decisions about protecting their home and reducing their insurance premium,” said Governor Bush. “During the last two years, thousands of Floridians lost their homes or were forced out of their homes for months because of damage sustained from a hurricane.  We want to help Floridians harden their homes against potential damage, which is an investment that can save them money on their annual insurance premium and spare them the anguish of losing their home during a natural disaster.”

Fortify Florida: Palm Beach Prepares! will feature home improvement how-to clinics and displays of building materials to strengthen homes. Insurance companies from the area will be available to talk to homeowners about how they can take advantage of discounts and credits on their premium for hardening their home against wind damage from hurricanes.  Homeowners can also apply for a free inspection and a grant up to $5000 from “My Safe Florida Home”, a $250 million program launched this year and administered by the Florida Department of Financial Services to help Floridians protect their homes. 

“The My Safe Florida Home Program is open for business and accepting applications for free home inspections,” said Tom Gallagher, Florida’s Chief Financial Officer. “Our mission is to help Floridians identify how they can strengthen their homes and better protect themselves and their families against hurricanes.  We have the financial capacity to serve as many as 50,000 Floridians over the next year, and with the Legislature’s continued funding, we look forward to providing free inspections and matching grants to as many Floridians as possible.”

“Two unprecedented back-to-back hurricane seasons caused $36 billion in insured losses and billions more in uninsured damage,” said Lt. Governor Toni Jennings, chair of the newly created Property & Casualty Insurance Reform Committee. “The rising cost of insurance is a hardship for many Floridians.  Fortifying Florida will reduce the risk of cumulative damage, which will stabilize the cost and availability of insurance.”

“Upgrading your home to the 2003 building code, installing hurricane shutters and securing your roof can protect your home from wind damage and also reduce the cost of your hurricane insurance policy,” said Insurance Commissioner Kevin McCarty.  “We want insurance companies to tell homeowners how much they can save by hardening their home, so they can make an informed decision about hardening their home.”

“Much of this hurricane season has passed safely, but preparation remains critical, and if they haven’t already done so, residents of the region need to get a hurricane plan,” said Frank Brogan, FAU president. “This is something our entire community needs to be a part of. It is vital that homeowners inspect their homes, and take whatever steps they can to harden their homes against storm damage. As an institution of leadership and learning, FAU is proud to support this effort. We know that fortifying is the best way to protect lives and to reduce the severity of insurance claims, and urge homeowners to attend the Fortify Florida town fair.” 

“Hurricanes are a fact of life for our region, and as we’ve learned, there is simply no substitute for preparation, particularly for homeowners in coastal or low-lying regions,” said Armando Olivera, FPL president. “I join Florida’s leaders in urging residents to act now to strengthen their homes. Fortifying homes against severe weather allows homeowners to protect their most valuable financial assets, lessening the chance of property damage. But most important is that these steps will save lives. Proper preparation and planning is the key to surviving, and strengthening our homes provides the greatest level of safety for Florida’s families.”

The State has taken steps this year to ease the financial burden of rising insurance rates on Florida’s homeowners and businesses.  In August, the Governor and Cabinet reactivated the Commercial Joint Underwriting Association to provide property insurance coverage to Florida’s business owners who have been unable to secure it from the private sector. 

To provide immediate relief to policyholders, the state provided $715 million to Citizens Property Insurance Corporation to offset the company’s deficit and reduce the surcharge assessed on all policyholders – not just those with coverage from Citizens.  Without this funding, insurance policies in the state would have increased an additional $172.48 for every $1000 of individual insurance premiums. 

To increase the availability of private insurance, the state is providing $250 million for a new Insurance Capital Build-up Incentive Program to provide matching funds for insurance companies bringing new capital to the market.  This program will enable private insurance companies to underwrite more policies. 

For information on creating a Family Disaster Preparedness Plan, please visit www.floridadisaster.org.  For information about participating in the My Safe Florida Home (Florida Comprehensive Hurricane Damage Mitigation Program), please visit www.mysafefloridahome.com or call 1-800-342-2762.


LT. GOVERNOR JENNINGS PROMOTES ENERGY-EFFICIENT PRODUCTS DURING SALES TAX HOLIDAY THROUGH OCTOBER 11

--Tax-free week encourages Floridians to purchase ENERGY STAR™ products--

Lt. Governor Toni Jennings today joined Department of Environmental Protection Secretary Colleen M. Castille, the Florida Retail Federation and executives of the Home Depot at the Home Depot in Tallahassee to promote energy efficient products during this year’s sales tax holiday. Designated as Energy Efficient Week, the holiday suspends the sales tax for ENERGY STAR™ products and appliances.

“Energy Efficient Week encourages consumers to invest in energy efficient products at a great savings,” said Lt. Governor Jennings. “By encouraging investment through grant programs and incentives, Florida is supporting market-based development of energy efficient products and reliable and cost-effective energy alternatives.”

Part of the 2006 Florida Energy Act, Energy Efficient Week encourages Floridians to invest in energy efficient products by providing relief from sales tax for approved products and appliances for up to $1,500. Qualifying energy efficient products include a dishwasher, clothes washer, air conditioner, ceiling fan, incandescent or fluorescent light bulb, dehumidifier, programmable thermostat, or refrigerator that meets all requirements of the ENERGY STAR program.

“Retailers recognize the economic and environmental benefits of increasing the number of households using appliances that are more environmentally efficient,” said Bill Herrle, Vice President of governmental affairs for the Florida Retail Federation. “That’s why consumers can expect to see retailers offering additional savings and promotions on Energy Star products during the holiday.”

Spearheaded by Governor Bush and Lt. Governor Jennings, the 2006 Florida Energy Act takes the first comprehensive step toward ensuring a diverse, reliable and secure energy future by reducing regulatory barriers to expedite electric generation capacity and providing rebates, grants and tax incentives to drive the development of alternative fuel technologies. The four year, $100 million plan will diversify the state’s fuel supply, reduce Florida’s dependence on imported oil, spur economic growth and promote energy conservation and efficiency. 

“Florida’s growing economy and quality of life depend on a diverse, secure and reliable supply of energy,” said Secretary Castille. “The 2006 Florida Energy Act includes incentives for conservation and efficiency, and promotes the development of alternative technologies through grant programs and targeted investments to reduce our dependence on foreign oil and fossil fuels.”

For more information on the 2006 Florida Energy Act, visit www.FloridaEnergy.org. To view the Governor’s proclamation for Energy Efficient Week, visit http://www.dep.state.fl.us/secretary/news/2006/proc/energy_efficient.pdf.


FLORIDA MAINTAINS “AAA” BOND RATING IN ANNUAL REVIEW BY STANDARD AND POOR’S CORPORATION

Governor Jeb Bush touted Standard and Poor’s Corporation’s decision to affirm Florida’s “AAA” bond rating in its annual review of the state.  “AAA” is the firm’s highest rating.  Standard and Poor’s cited Florida’s strong, conservative financial and budget management practices in affirming the “AAA” rating, first issued in 2005. 

“Undaunted by eight hurricanes in two years, Florida’s economy is surging. I am pleased to see that Standard and Poor’s has recognized that our low-tax, pro-business approach to government is working for Florida,” said Governor Bush.  “Our reasonable tax structure and record-level financial reserves have also helped to create stability and opportunities for long-term growth, as evidenced by this rating decision.”

Florida’s strong financial position has enabled the state to increase funding for economic development and provide tax relief to residents and businesses.  Florida’s unemployment rate is 3.3 percent, 1.5 percentage points below the national rate of 4.8 percent.  The state continues to be a national model for job creation with an annual job growth rate that is more than twice the national average.

In its credit report released last week, Standard and Poor’s cited several factors in reaffirming the “AAA” rating, including:

  • The state's strong and conservative financial and budget management practices,
    Strong revenue performance during the past several years,

  • Budget pressures that have been effectively managed as the state continues funding various constitutional amendments and the service demands of a growing population,

  • A service-based economy with growth continuing to outpace the national economy as measured by employment, population and gross state product,

  • Solid long-term economic growth prospects and a strong and competitive position in the Southeast,

  • Average income levels, and

  • A moderate debt burden that should remain stable as a result of legal guidelines regarding debt affordability.

In 2005, two other major rating agencies increased Florida’s credit rating.  Moody’s Investors Service upgraded Florida’s general obligation bond rating from Aa2 to Aa1, marking the first change in the state’s rating since it was initially assigned in the early 1970s.  Fitch Ratings also upgraded the state to its 'AA+' full faith and credit bond rating. 

For more information on Florida’s growing and robust economy, please visit www.myflorida.com.


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